Before the founding of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary told by the founders

This is the story of some of the earlier years of a few of us who were the founders of Best Friends. Today, there are about 20 of us — a few have retired and sadly some have passed away — out of a staff of over 500, who are actively involved in the work of Best Friends.

Read more about Best Friends' history

Meeting in London in the 1960s

Some of the group first met each other 50 years ago, while still in their late teens in London, England, in the 1960s.

England, even more so than the United States, was in upheaval in the ’60s. A whole generation of people was looking for a better way of life following the social, economic and institutional upheavals that followed World War II. Remember, England, and London particularly, was devastated by the war, and the period from 1945 though the 1960s saw the country go from a world empire to a troubled island nation struggling for a new identity in a new world. The English class system was collapsing and giving rise to a new popular culture that was changing with each passing month. There were “ban the bomb” peace marches and public blockades of American nuclear submarines. The now-famous peace symbol was born of those protests. What the rest of the world saw was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the societal changes that brought them to prominence were more turbulent than the stiff-upper-lip Brits wanted the world to know.

Looking for a true calling in life

The original group of about 25 friends set out from London against that backdrop on a quest that would lead them to various places, including a Mayan ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan and all across Britain, Europe and the United States. The group evolved through several different spiritually-oriented incarnations, and then moved on from each of them. It was all part of a search to find our true calling in life, which was right under our collective nose in the form of the animals who had always had a special place in our lives and work.

And while the animals were a big part of our lives from the very beginning, it would be many years before some of us would come back together again to start the work of what is now Best Friends Animal Society.

It’s a story – a whole series of stories – that could fill a book. (And perhaps one day, when we’re not so busy rescuing animals, we’ll write that book. )

But for now, here’s a sketch of how a group of friends got from that remarkable beginning at a ruin called Xtul to the start of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in 1984.

Journeying in Mexico

(This section of the story is told by Faith Maloney)

It was a picture-perfect full-moon night in August of 1966 … a calm, glittering ocean, a pristine beach on Mexico’s Yucatan coast, silence but for the sound of gentle waves lapping at the shore a few yards away.

“Close your eyes,” I said. “And relax. Let what comes come. Now begin the meditation.”

It had been the end of a long bus journey from Mexico City for most of us, and we were all tired. There had to be something here for us. We had said goodbye to England to start an adventure on the other side of world. Sitting there in a circle on the sand, we were an odd bunch of dropouts from a traditional life. We were well-educated; some of us had degrees and were even working in professions. I had completed a degree in fine art, gotten married, and was pregnant with my first child. Lots of things had happened to me in a short period of time, and even with all that, this felt especially right; there was a sense of magic in the air.

The world we had left behind was undergoing changes too. For those of us who were born right at the end of World War II, we were seeing the birth of whole new society. We were not willing to accept the old way of life. Our politics and our music reflected that voice. We shouted and marched for nuclear disarmament; the music and pop culture “British Invasion” was just about to launch, and England was in the middle of its biggest makeover since Queen Victoria. We were looking for something different. We were looking for it all to mean something.

I had grown up Catholic in an Irish family living in England. I’d found fault with the church as a young girl and had no problem rejecting its teachings, but I was still driven to find out what my purpose in life was. A big question, I know, but I had found a group of people in London who were also looking for that same elusive goal. Some of our generation were looking for answers through drugs and sex, but this was not for me or my new friends. We were searching for a spiritual connection with the universe. I had always been interested in metaphysics and the paranormal. I had even studied meditation and telepathy in London.

We had sold our possessions, borrowed money from anyone who could spare it, and set off for the Bahamas. There was the fanciful notion that maybe there was a nice desert island we could move to in that area, so we took jobs in Nassau and went looking. Bahamian islands are really nice, very remote, and also very expensive, so that dream faded, to be replaced by a new dream of finding somewhere in Mexico. For people raised in rainy England, Mexico had the allure of both sun and an ancient history full of legend and mystery.

Mexico City, our first stop in the New World, was like every other crowded city in the world, so we looked at the map to see where else we could go. The Yucatan, land of the ancient Maya, seemed to beckon, so we chartered a bus and took it right to the edge of the Gulf. Two from our group, Michael Mountain and Paul Eckhoff, had gone on ahead of us to find a place for us to stay.

Michael was a 20-year-old Oxford University dropout. He had been expected to round out a proper British education and join Granada Television, one of the family businesses. A tall man with a striking head of red hair, Michael was creative, inventive and a little bit crazy. But who am I to talk? We were all a bit crazy giving up home, family and security for a dream.

Paul Eckhoff, who was in his late 20s, had already done a tour of duty in the British army, and was now an architect who designed prisons. (This would come in handy, 20 years later, for dog compounds!)

Michael and Paul took a bus and arrived in the tiny fishing hamlet of Sisal, which consisted of a couple of dozen small white houses, a jetty, and a dirt road from Merida, along which a bus that exchanged fish for supplies arrived twice weekly. They found a small house, with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a room to store the suitcases.

This was literally the end of the road. There was the sea on the one side and the hope of something better on the other. We didn’t have enough money to go back to Mexico City and start over. We had just enough to get back to London. A couple of people had already decided to do that.

So I suggested that we sit in a circle and hold a meditation. What did we have to lose?

A guided meditation

The two dozen of us sat down in a large circle on the beach.

“If you get any pictures or feelings — anything at all,” I said before we started, “just tell us all afterward. So close your eyes and relax. Let what comes come. Now begin the meditation.”

The dogs were the first to settle down. (I should have mentioned earlier that we’d brought a half dozen German shepherds with us.) The dogs were more than pets; they were an integral part of our collective, each with a distinct personality and something special to contribute. And soon we all drifted off until, about 20 minutes later, I called everyone back in.

I went round the circle, asking each person whether they had anything to report. “Not really,” was the main answer. I pushed everyone a little more.

“Well, I saw us all heading down that trail,” said someone, rather half-heartedly, pointing to the sand track that went east out of the village.

Not exactly a revelation by the sound of it.

“I saw a circle of palm trees in a sort of golden haze,” said someone else.

“I saw an old man with a stick and a dog.”

“A big old ruin.”

“Three buildings.”

“I felt we should go that way, too,” said someone else, pointing down the sand track.

“Me, too.”

 “I felt we should go that way,” said Tessa, a young member of the group, pointing the other way, west.

She always wanted to do the opposite of everyone else. So that kind of confirmed going east!

And since there was no other plan, we agreed to head off down the trail along the beach the following morning.

The trail to Xtul

By morning, a couple more people in the group had decided to head back home. The rest of us waved goodbye to the bemused group of villagers watching us for entertainment, and headed off down the trail.

To our left was the shore of the Gulf of Mexico; to our right, about a mile in, a lagoon. Somewhere farther along (“Too far, too far,” said the villagers) was the next village, Chuburna.

The winding trail ran alongside the ocean. You couldn’t see much, just lots of tall grass and palm trees on either side. And mosquitoes. By 10 o’clock, it was getting hot, and we were already tired. By noon, when we stopped for lunch, a few more decided they’d had enough and turned back to go home to England. By mid-afternoon, a couple more. It seemed kind of pointless to go on, but I think the rest of us were just determined not to give up.

At about five in the afternoon, the sun was lower in the sky and filtered through some high clouds. We were thinking about the fact that we would soon have to stop for the night. We had no camping gear. Nothing.

And then, as we rounded the next bend along the trail, there, coming toward us, was an old man with a stick and a dog.

Just beyond him, the tall grasses on the ocean side of the track gave way to a clear view between the trail and the beach. Three buildings were roofless and largely in ruins. To one side of them, a circle of palm trees was bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.

Michael spoke some Spanish. “¿Que es este lugar?” (“What is this place?”) he asked the old man.

He wasn’t sure the man understood him as a lot of the older people in the Yucatan still spoke more of the old Mayan language than Spanish.

The man just smiled and said, “Es para vosotros.” (“It is for you.”) And he waved goodbye and continued down the trail.

We walked, or rather tiptoed, across the sand and the brush toward the buildings. Two seemed to have been old houses; the other, a huge, open, roofless, empty stone ruin with tall walls.

We sat for a while, not quite sure what to make of it all. But we were now low on water, so a couple of us decided to be practical and continue on to Chuburna, which had to be not much farther along.

It was indeed only half an hour away. Chuburna was a small fishing village with a couple of stores that sold Coca-Cola and sweet-tasting cigarettes called Alas. Next to one of the stores, a small shop serviced the new outboard motors that proud fishermen now used on their boats.

One of the villagers came out of his house to greet us. Michael explained that we were travelers and that we’d stopped at the place with the three buildings in ruins. Our welcomer introduced himself as Jose Sosa, and said that all the land out that way was owned by a businessman in Mexico City, who exchanged fish for supplies in the various villages along the coast.

“Can we call him on the phone?” Michael asked.

“Hay telefono en Progreso.” (“There’s a phone in Progreso.”) Jose replied, offering to drive us there tomorrow.

“Does the place have a name?”

“Se llama Xtul.” (“It is called Xtul.”) Pronounced “Shtool.”

The next day, two of the group went out to Progreso, and called the landowner, explaining that we had found this beautiful place, and that we didn’t have much money, but that we would like to stay there if possible.

 ”Yes,” he said in broken English. “I dreamed that you would be coming. I rent it to you for one peso a month.”

The scene at nearby Dzibilchaltun on the morning of the equinox

The ruins at Xtul dated back to Mayan times. Not far inland, on the other side of the lagoon, was Dzibilchaltun, a temple ruin, with an arch perfectly positioned so that at the spring and fall equinox, the rising sun shines straight through and lights up a stone plinth a few hundred yards away.

For the next three months, we lived at Xtul. The first few weeks, we spent our days repairing the big stone building. We made friends with the villagers, who would bring their music band, Los Tiburones, in the evening once a week. Their instruments were a washboard, a string-pole-and-bucket bass, and other homemade devices. One of our group, a musician, fashioned a guitar out of a gourd and joined in.

Each time they came visiting, the villagers would ask us to tell them again where we were from. Each time, we’d draw a map in the sand. They understood the Gulf of Mexico and knew of a place called New Orleans. We tried to explain the Atlantic Ocean and the countries on the other side, but they would always look baffled and ask, “And where you live, does the sun rise there, too?”

The hurricane

One day, the British consul arrived in Chuburna, urgently looking for us. A hurricane was coming. We had to leave at once. He was arranging transport. We got together and talked about it, then thanked him for the kind offer and explained that there was no way we could leave. As far as we were concerned, we’d been “led” to Xtul, and we couldn’t possibly abandon it. He told us we were crazy (he was probably right!), and then he hurried away, leaving us with dire warnings.

The warnings were no exaggeration. Hurricane Inez was a category three storm that proceeded to flatten the entire village of Chuburna and others along the coast. Thousands of lives were lost. It arrived the following evening, and as the winds grew, we could do nothing except huddle in the big stone ruin, peeking over the wall as coconut trees flew by at 90 miles an hour. One end of the building collapsed, its huge boulders crashing down. We were at the other end.

When the wind died down, we assumed it was all over. However, we were simply in the eye of the hurricane. Just as we were starting to take stock of the damage, it all started up again, with the coconut trees now flying back the other way.

Two days later, when the storm had died down, huge sacks of supplies began arriving from the United States — flour and powdered milk and other basics.

For the next month, we helped rebuild the village, mending roofs and barns, building temporary homes and cooking for families whose houses had been destroyed. And in the evening, long discussions would stretch into the night as we tried to unravel the mysteries of human existence, the meaning of life, and other deep subjects — along with the rather more mundane question of what we were going to do next!

Meanwhile, for some of us who were still under age, our families, who had been in touch with the British consul, were getting concerned and sending messages that they were not pleased by our apparently reckless behavior. One way or another, it seemed like time to go back to England.

For those who were leaving, Xtul gave us its own kind of farewell. They told me later that as they set off down the trail to Chuburna to catch the truck to Merida, they met the old man with the stick and the dog again.

“You are leaving,” he said. “But one day there will be another place for you. It is a beach without an ocean. And the sand is all red. And there are animals. Muchos animales.”

In hindsight, it was a fair enough description of Angel Canyon, the future home, 20 years later, of Best Friends Animal Society.

Because of the British quarantine regulations, the dogs could not return to England. So I volunteered to stay at Xtul along with a few others. After all, I liked the idea that my baby would be born in this beautiful, mystical place. For me, those following months were idyllic. It’s a strange thing to say about living with no roof, having to haul drinking water, eating mostly oranges, avoiding poisonous snakes and scorpions, but for this girl raised in comfortable English suburbia, this was paradise. Having no roof meant I could see the sky in all its glory, day and night. I could watch the iguanas running and playing up and down the palm trees, I could lie in my hammock and count the families of black scorpions climbing the walls. But best of all, I was taking care of the dogs.

This was as natural a world for them as you can get. No doors, no fences, no leads or collars, no rules. A high point of my day was going down to the beach, which after the hurricane was only a few feet from the broken building, to watch the dogs and birds play. At first, I felt anxious to see the dogs chasing the birds. I didn’t want any creature to be hurt. But after a short while, I saw that this was play. The birds would land. Dogs would chase. Birds would fly away but only a short distance. Dogs would chase. Birds would fly away and then land a few feet away. This went on for as long as both parties wanted. The dogs gave in first as they got tired with all that running, and we would lope on back for dinner.

Once this routine was established, I could hear the birds calling us every day to come and play. I had grown up with dogs, but my mother did the lion’s share of the caregiving, so this was a new experience for me to see the natural world through the eyes of the dogs and the birds. I would bring these observation skills with me when I started Dogtown at Best Friends 20 years later.

My son, David, was born in early 1967 thanks to the kindness and skill of two Mayan midwives at the start on my labor who invoked both the Virgin Mary and ancient Mayan gods for a good delivery, and finally the medical team at the main hospital in Merida, Yucatan.

The people of the village were very kind, helping this new mother who didn’t know much about taking care of a new baby. My friends had helped build a crib and get the supplies needed as I was more into looking at the stars and playing with dogs than reading up on the basics. David thrived in this open-air environment, but when he was five months old, we got the call that it was time to leave Xtul. Some of us would return to London, but others would go to New Orleans as we had the dogs and did not want them to have to spend the mandatory six months in British quarantine. I was sad to say goodbye to this place that had opened my eyes to the natural world and its mysteries. But I knew it was time.

The Process Church

(This section of the story is told by Francis Battista)

Back in London, the group toyed, for a couple of months, with becoming a political organization. They explored some of the movements on either end of the spectrum — the equivalents of what might today include social justice movements or the Tea Party. They didn’t mind which side they were on — anything other than the sclerotic English class system and what they termed the “gray middle path of mediocrity.”

But they weren’t really interested in politics. A true alternate lifestyle, they had come to understand, was a matter of the soul and the spirit, more than of political agendas. So they resolved to start their own spiritually-based organization.

Many had studied different religions, philosophies and cultures, ancient and modern. And discussions during the evenings at Xtul had focused on the basic things they shared in common: primarily the Golden Rule, which they referred to as the Universal Law, and it was a central tenet of all the great teachers throughout history:

“As you give, so shall you receive. 
”So do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Simple and straightforward. But which of the religions of the day really practiced it?

The Golden Rule became the cornerstone of the organization that was now forming: the Process Church — a process of self-knowledge aimed at transcending the twin evils of blame and self-justification that fueled all human conflict. That would be a true alternate and exemplary lifestyle — maybe even the makings of a better world.

One of the leaders of the group, Robert de Grimston, who had a theological background, started writing extensively about this and related subjects. He built on the Golden Rule concept, as taught in the Gospels, along with Christ’s teachings of unconditional love: “But I say unto you that you should love your enemies, and do good to those who curse you.”

This notion of unconditional love guided the kind of work that they would take on: finding the more loveless elements of society — drug addicts, convicts, and the generally down-and-out — and doing what they could to help them.

Among other things, they published a book on drug addiction, and worked with some of the most progressive doctors of the time, with some minor success. They set up soup kitchens, went to prisons, and put on courses, classes and workshops that brought together people from opposite ends of the political, religious and scientific spectrums and held forth at Hyde Park’s famous Speakers’ Corner on the cruel nature of animal experimentation.

They also developed a whole cosmology and adopted attire and paraphernalia that expressed it all in true English ’60s style. For example, they dressed in black or white, with a purple cape, and their main insignia was a cross with a serpent coiled round it.

As already mentioned, some of the group had stayed behind to take care of the dogs, who couldn’t come back to England without going into six months of quarantine. So four of those who had returned to England were nominated to go to the United States, so Faith could hand over care of the dogs and then return to London with her young son.

The Process Church in America

The small group met up in New Orleans to find a nation in upheaval. Their first night there, they turned on the TV to see Lyndon Johnson, besieged by the Vietnam War, announcing that he would not seek a second term as president.

In the French Quarter, they connected with a flamboyant local attorney who worked for the Catholic Church and was involved in the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and all manner of related conspiracy theories. He volunteered to put together the incorporation papers for an American branch of the Process Church. He worked on it for weeks, and emerged with a document that provided the early framework for the fledgling organization.

That chapter of organizational history lasted for less than a year — until tourist visas expired. In that time, they moved on from New Orleans, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, and to New York, gathering a small following as they went, interacting with many of the movements and subcultures of the time, but always finding themselves on the outside of all of them, largely because their own agreed-upon lifestyle excluded the sex and drugs that were such a hallmark of the time.

And in the summer of 1968, they and their new American following headed to Europe.

Europe and the animals

Since the dogs could not go back to England due to quarantine restrictions, the largest contingent booked transit on a ship with the dogs that landed them in Germany. They traveled mainly through Germany, France and Italy, living off the sale of small books and the magazine that were published by the London contingent. The newest book was titled “The Ultimate Sin.” It was about the great evil to which we have never become reconciled: cruelty to animals, particularly in the form of vivisection — scientific experimentation on helpless animals for the benefit of human beings.

The Brits were turning out to be very supportive of our efforts, which were now focused more and more on helping animals. It was at that time that we first explored the possibility of an animal sanctuary – looking for a suitable place in Ireland and around the north of England. Those who had landed in Europe from America decided to go looking for suitable places, too.

This all turned into something of a quest. And in keeping with an undertaking to live the lifestyle outlined in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs to preach the “good news,” taking nothing but the clothes on their back and instructing them to have faith in the Lord and his people for their daily keep, the group set out in pairs all over Europe, hitchhiking as they went, frequently with a bunch of dogs, and meeting all sorts of wonderful people and going from one adventure to another.

It was, at once, tremendously serious and hilariously funny. One night, they’d be staying as guests of a monastery, the next at the castle of a European princess, and the next at a train station. At a train station in Sicily, the station manager took up a collection, right there on the platform, to help on their latest mission: getting to Rome to plead with the pope to make a statement against the cruel sport of bullfighting.

The libel suit and Internet conspiracy theories

An over-the-top style, garb that included cloaks and pendants of a cross and a serpent to symbolize healing and reconciliation, made the Process Church an easy target for rumors and gossip, which they did nothing to discourage. Outraging the establishment was all part of the theatrical approach taken to generate attention and dialogue. It also generated some outlandish media coverage. It was nonsense, but it made good press, and even the group usually got a good laugh out of it. However, the in-your-face defiance of convention would come around to bite the organization.

One day in 1969, one of those “I Gave Birth to an Alien” tabloid rags had a story in it that the infamous murderer Charles Manson had had something to do with the Process. Those who had been in California knew that they had had nothing to do with anyone like him during their sojourn there from late 1967 to the spring of 1968, so no notice was taken of this at the time. But a couple of years later, a book was published in the United States that drew on that tabloid article. An attorney friend advised that the organization simply had to file a lawsuit. So they did.

The author of the book was unwilling to stand behind his writing and went into seclusion rather than even show up to the deposition hearing, leaving the extremely embarrassed publisher to settle as quickly as possible. Existing copies of the book were withdrawn, offending sections were to be removed from any future printings, and a public apology issued.

But the whole affair left a nasty taste, and to this day, the story and other rumors and related Internet conspiracies theories based on that article and that book still float around.

In any case, the ’60s were over, and some members were already heading into their 30s and were ready to move on. Some still wanted to keep it all going – especially Robert de Grimston. He had emerged as the face of the Process and had written a number of books and become quite well-known in academic and theological circles.

But for others, the whole experience had really been about finding a better way of life based simply on a love of God and a life lived according to the Golden Rule. They wanted to continue with their charitable work, but they’d had it with complicated cosmologies that added nothing to the preferred simplicity of a life based on service and the Universal Law. The organization was also transitioning from advocacy against animal experimentation to active shelter rescue and animal rehabilitation along with other social service activities

The Foundation Faith

De Grimston and his supporters were shown the door in 1974. Those remaining reorganized around basic Christian principles that pointed toward kindness and compassion in all things, especially in their relationship to the animals. The re-formed organization was called the Foundation Faith, which focused on living a life that expressed one’s beliefs through the work done — mostly now with children in hospitals, with the elderly in nursing homes and in hospice, at prisons, and, of course with animals.

It was all very worthwhile, and each area of service reached many people and impacted many lives for the better, but the growing concern about animals in our society was now dominating the organizational agenda.

The animals take over

The Foundation Faith had bought a small ranch property outside of Prescott, Arizona, with a view to beginning a retreat center. But instead of filling it with people, it was being filled with dogs and cats.

They’d go to the humane society in Prescott every few weeks, just before what was called “E-Day.” Some of the future Best Friends founders would get there the day before E-Day, take as many as possible of their “unadoptables,” and look after them at the ranch.

Meanwhile, Faith Maloney was managing a small animal shelter in Pennsylvania.

The animals were beginning to take over!

For many of the group, the animals had always been the main driving passion. And when a few of the group got together one evening at the ranch to talk about what next and where next, everyone agreed that it was time to devote themselves entirely to that true passion.

Faith managed to find homes for most of the animals she was caring for in Pennsylvania. The rest she brought to the Arizona ranch, where she became sanctuary manager.

But it was already clear that a larger place was needed. So, with my background in real estate, I volunteered to find a suitable property that could fulfill the collective dreams for an animal sanctuary. The year was 1982.

The birth of Best Friends Animal Society

And gradually Best Friends was born. After a considerable search that lasted two years and crisscrossed Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Texas, in 1984, we began the Sanctuary at Angel Canyon in Southern Utah — at a beautiful but remote location. For the next few years, some of the members of the Foundation Faith continued their work with children, in prisons, and with old folks. However, animal care in a sanctuary setting was and is very expensive, time-consuming and pre-occupying. It became the center of gravity of our interest and our work, and over time, those who were not passionate about animal rescue went their own way on good terms, and as more and more hands were needed to help build the Sanctuary, it was clear that the work of the Foundation Faith had really ended and a new chapter was beginning

Best Friends began with a group of people committed to its success. Much of what happened next is told in Samantha Glen’s book, “Best Friends: The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary.” It covers much of the period from 1984 to about 1996.

The years that followed were yet a whole new, wonderful, remarkable development: the flowering of the no-kill movement in which Best Friends was a leading player.

And today, as Best Friends works with people and humane groups across the country to build successful local programs, more and more communities, all over the country, are working toward the day when every dog and cat can be assured of a good home with a loving family.

Kindness towards animals and the Golden Rule

For those of us who began Best Friends, there were always two fundamentals: first, the animals themselves, and doing the best we can for them, and second, finding a better way of life for ourselves and others.

Back in the ’60s, in our teens and 20s, we’d tried many different directions, gone in and out of different organizations, and started our own, several times over, trying to discover what worked.

None of what we found in those early days was the answer. But although we came from many different backgrounds, we shared a common concern for the animals and nature, and we were committed to the mission of ending the killing of shelter pets.

Today, there are more than a quarter of a million people who are supporters of Best Friends and share those same basic values. And we can say, with some certainty, that this simple combination — kindness and respect toward the animals, and the simple philosophy of the Golden Rule — is the basis of a lifestyle that works.

Indeed, over the last 29 years, people from all over the world have been writing to Best Friends every day, often using almost identical words when they say, “I thought I was the only person (at work, at school, even sometimes at home) who felt this way about the animals. Now I know I’m not.”

There are millions of people, all over the world, who share the same basic understanding that kindness to animals builds a better world for all of us.

Thank you for being part of this work of the heart. And whatever your own story, the path that led you to caring about the animals, we’re all very privileged to be able to count you among our own Best Friends.

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